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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Angelique S. Chengelis

'Smash on three': Offensive line sets tone for unbeaten Wolverines

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — At the end of every position group meeting, Sherrone Moore, Michigan’s co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach who has led the group to two straight Joe Moore Awards given to the nation’s top line, sends the players off the same way.

“Smash on three!” he shouts to the players.

Smash has become a way of life for the Wolverines. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy refers to it as “smash fest” football, and T-shirts are being sold after the latest Joe Moore win with “Smash” across the front.

Without question, the offensive line has set the tone for the unbeaten Wolverines this season, and while running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards have garnered headlines for their talent and speed, the line should be credited with a significant portion of the run game success and that of the offense overall.

Michigan is ranked No. 5 nationally averaging 243 yards rushing per game, but the Wolverines also are No. 4 in time of possession, averaging 33.54 minutes per game, and they’re also 17th in third-down percentage (47%). A good portion of that should be attributed to the offensive line. That's all about the rewards of smash, after all.

And now the No. 2 Wolverines (13-0) are preparing to face No. 3 TCU (12-1) in the Fiesta Bowl national semifinal on Saturday with the winner advancing to the national championship.

“That’s just our identity as a team, just smash,” left tackle Ryan Hayes said Tuesday during a news conference previewing the upcoming game. “Whatever you’re doing, even if you don’t know what you’re doing, just smash. Hit somebody as hard as you can, and it will work out for us. That’s our main identity and Coach Moore always pushes that on us. Just smash. That’s what we do around here.”

McCarthy said offensive linemen hold a “special place” in his heart because they’re the unsung heroes of the offense and its heartbeat.

If McCarthy would prefer to be throwing 400 yards a game, he must be a good actor, because he relishes smash and the fact it suggests physicality and the ability to push around teams while running the ball effectively.

“Our offensive line knows the term very well. It’s about moving a man against his will from point A to point B,” McCarthy said when asked about smash. “I just feel like it’s a constant boa constricting mentality of just, we’re never gonna give up. Just hitting you in the mouth. We embrace it. We love it.”

It was Michigan’s offensive line that got smashed in the national semifinal game last season against eventual national champion Georgia. The Wolverines were overmatched by a big, physical defensive front that put them on their heels from the outset.

That outcome was pivotal for Michigan this season, as the Wolverines went to work to figure out how to become the team to be feared. They’ve talked a lot about how their first appearance in the College Football Playoff last year had more of a happy-to-be-there vibe. There were pool and beach trips, and now, looking back, they said they should have avoided engaging in any of the bowl perks and been focused the entire trip.

For the offensive linemen, they heard about that loss to Georgia and their performance every day during spring practice this year. Moore would play clips from the game to remind them. They didn’t play smash − they got smashed by the Bulldogs.

“Don’t really need to say much,” Moore said. “The guys understood when they saw the film what it looked like and what they didn’t want to look like. A picture speaks a thousand words. When they saw that stuff, they just knew they didn’t want that to happen again.”

With the addition of graduate transfer center Olu Oluwatimi, who this month was named the Rimington Award winner as the nation’s top center and the Outland Trophy winner as the top interior lineman, the line took another step forward.

“We’re definitely a better offensive line than we were last year,” Hayes said.

There aren’t a lot of stats offensive linemen look at to define whether they’ve had a good game, but they all focus on the run stats. Against Georgia last year, Michigan had 27 carries for 91 rushing yards (3.4 yards a carry), certainly not stellar but also slightly skewed because the Wolverines were in catch-up mode and threw the ball.

As they enter Saturday’s game against TCU, the Wolverines are averaging 5.64 yards a carry

That stat makes the offensive linemen very happy. And the smash mentality is what has helped make that happen.

“As a position group, we embody what Coach Moore wants, and he wants to make every game a war,” Oluwatimi said. “He wants to bring teams out to the deep end and see if they can hang with us. He knows that we have his back, because we’ve shown that in the way we prepare. He has complete trust in us to do that. It’s awesome when a coach believes in you and he has trust in you that you’re gonna make him right.”

Moore laughs that smash has taken on a life of its own, but he also loves how the linemen and team have embraced it. Smash also means never letting up and finishing games.

“You just take them into the deep end of the pool, but the real thing is, it’s a mentality you want to bring, you just don’t want to stop," Moore said. "As soon as you stop, you’re gonna get punched in the face. It’s like a boxer. As soon as you let your guard down, it’s over. We’re just continually grinding and not stopping. And the only way we stop is when the game’s over.”

The TCU defensive players on Tuesday said they’ve been impressed how physical Michigan’s offensive line is and understand that stopping the run will be key. That means avoiding the smash, which is what the offensive linemen said they won’t allow to happen.

“We have another opportunity to show what type of team we are, what type of players we are, what we’re made of," Oluwatimi said. "We’re gonna relish this opportunity and try to play our best.”

And to apply the smash mindset.

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